Whether you're an at-home skincare enthusiast or someone who regularly sees their dermatologist, you've probably come across the beauty term "retinoid." Almost every dermatologist recommends it to solve a variety of skincare issues, from clogged pores and acne to dry skin and wrinkles. How can one ingredient work for so many concerns and on so many different skin types? What makes retinoids so universally beloved? Because they work.
"Topical retinoids have been studied for decades," says Dr. Yoon Soo Bae, MD, a member of Women's Dermatologic Society. Unlike many trendy ingredients today, the benefits of retinoids have been proven time and time again, which is why they're so ardently recommended by the experts. Here, we ask top dermatologists everything you need to know about this seemingly miracle ingredient. Starting, of course, with the most basic question of…well, what is it?
To start, what is a retinoid?
"Scientifically, it's the natural alcohol form of vitamin A," says Soo Bae. "There are many mechanisms of action, including gene transcription that affects the growth and differentiation of the skin cells." What this means, in a nutshell, is that a retinoid can actually change how your skin forms and ages, as dictated by your genes.
How does it work, and what are the effects?
"It sends a signal to the nucleus to increase collagen formation, which thickens the skin, and when you have thicker skin, it's less prone to wrinkling," says Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD. "It also helps treat acne, lightens pigment from hyperpigmentation, and even reverses sun damage. For patients who have a history of skin cancer or a high risk for skin cancer, we'll start them on retinoids to help minimize their risk."
Is there a difference between retinol and retinoid?
"Retinoid is the umbrella term, or class of chemical compounds that have vitamin A activity," Soon Bae explains. "Retinol is a form of retinoid." Engelman adds that retinol is a less potent derivative of retinoid. If you buy prescription strength, you'll be getting a retinoid. If you buy over the counter, you'll be getting retinol, with one exception: Differin Gel, which used to be available only by prescription, can now be purchased over the counter.
Who should use it?
"With the exception of children, pregnant, and breastfeeding women, anyone interested in improving the appearance of their skin can use it," Soon Bae says. "Patients with acne, photoaging, pre-cancerous skin lesions, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, or sun spots can use it." Dermatologists will generally recommend patients start using it in their mid to late 20s, Engelman says.
How and when should you use it?
If you're new to retinol, you should "baby step it," Engelman says. "Getting used to vitamin A can be a process. You can get red and flaky because it accelerates cell turnover. Use it once a week for one week, twice a week for two weeks, three times a week for three weeks, and so on to get your skin acclimated." She says to use a pea-sized amount for your entire face. Put it on your finger and dab it onto your forehead, nose, chin, and cheeks. Always use moisturizer on top because it can make your skin dry. "If your skin is dry or sensitive, you can also put on moisturizer before retinol to minimize irritation and redness," Engelman says. "It doesn't affect the effectiveness of the product, but it does enhance tolerability. You can mix it with your moisturizer, too."
One important note: Use your retinoid only at night, not only because it can make your skin more prone to sun damage (wear sunscreen daily!) but also because cellular turnover is naturally occurring during the nighttime, so retinoids will be most effective then, Engelman says. Irritation, dryness, peeling skin, and redness are the only drawbacks to using a retinoid, Soon Bae says. And some people with super sensitive skin just can't seem to tolerate it, Engelman adds.
Are there any ingredients you shouldn't use in tandem with a retinoid?
"When you're new to retinol, stop exfoliating," Engelman says, "because retinols are a natural exfoliant. Once you've been 'retinized,' and your skin isn't red or peeling from the treatment, you can reincorporate exfoliative measures. Benzoyl peroxide can also render the vitamin A less effective, as it's not a stable molecule."
Vitamin C and retinol might not go well together well, either, Engelman says. "It's a bit controversial, and I don't know if it will really play out, but there are some studies that say if you put vitamin C on before retinol, the retinol could become less effective," she says. "It may have to do with the pH change from the vitamin C. But the good news is that people put on vitamin C in morning and retinol in the evening."
Which over-the-counter products should you look for?
"RoC Correxion is really good and tends to be well tolerated," Engelman says. "It wins beauty awards against much more expensive alternatives. I also like one called AlphaRet Overnight Cream by Skin Better Science, and it's much better tolerated than a lot of retinols. Differin Gel is awesome, too. It used to be $300 as a prescription and now it's $12 over the counter."